TRANSCRIPT: Tales of Teaching Online ep. 50: Digital equity and higher education (feat Joan Sutherland and Darren Britten)
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Intro: Digital, student-centred, creative, innovation, imagination, initiative, stories that matter.
Joan: I’m Joan Sutherland. And this is Tales of Teaching Online brought to you by Deakin Learning Futures. Hello, my name is John Sutherland and today I’m really excited about this podcast. I’m joined by Darren Britten, talking to him today around digital equity, so around accessibility, inclusion in delving into that topic today. Hi Darren.
Darren Britten: Hello Joan, how are you doing?
Joan: Good. Thank you and thanks for joining us on this podcast.
Darren: Thank you for having me. It’s always exciting to talk about it digital equity, accessibility, inclusion, all of those things. I’m very excited to be here. Thanks.
Joan: So Darren, can you please tell us a bit more about your role, your title, and what is it that you actually do?
Darren: Most definitely, I’ll I’ll try not to put everybody to sleep though because there’s some very long titles. I’m currently the National Assistive Technology Project Officer, um, which is long title as part of the National Disability Coordination Officers Program, which has run out of Department of Education. There’s lots of government through there. I sit alongside the Australian Disability Clearinghouse in Education and Training, so my role aligns with them or ADCET. So for those that are unfamiliar, ADCET is a clearinghouse for a whole bunch of things on inclusion, accessibility, and disability.
Joan: So a lot of long titles there.
Darren: a lot of long title in those roles.
Joan: So what is it you do in those roles?
Darren: In those roles, many things. It’s largely focused on the assistive technology and accessibility digital space particularly. And we particularly saw during COVID, which we’re still not out of yet. There’s still some working from home, teaching remotely. How much of an impact digital equity or accessibility played in that, in that space. The sudden transition to I think practically most of Australian studies going online, particularly in the tertiary sector. There was a a big gap suddenly became, became apparent in terms of those that could access those couldn’t. I mean, digital equity covers things even like those that didn’t even have a computer or laptop that relying on institutional through to incarcerated students. So digital equity is a big mix of giving people access to education in the digital space in all shapes and forms. And then one day a week, I work at Deakin with some wonderful people there with the Accessibility Champions and with some students at Deakin um, where we focus on how can we do things better.
Joan: That’s great. It’s always good to do things better, especially in this space. But one thing that you’ve highlighted is around digital equity. And we often talk about accessibility and inclusion. Can you just define those for me and what you mean by digital equity?
Darren: I might look at it differently from many people because I’ve been talking in the accessibility space for a long time. And accessibility has often been seen as a dirty word. I think inclusion has had much more of an impact. And inclusion has culture, gender, a whole range of things associated with it. And you’ll find people saying we’re very inclusive, but that doesn’t relate to accessibility. It doesn’t relate to accessibility offline and accessibility online. So I tend not to necessarily differentiate the two, but put it into that digital equity framework over into the online space of where are we actually being equitable? And that might cover some things like gender, like bits and pieces. But largely it would be the accessibility nature of what happens. And some people do certainly see them as being the same thing and they’re not. There is a really good definition around accessibility. I’ve forgotten exactly what it is but something along the lines of accessibility is having that access to inclusion is being invited in in the first place. So you might be invited in, but you still don’t have access to something and that often happens. We’ll build the best intent will put courses and subjects, units and things online and we’ll design them really well. But then we don’t give somebody a key to get in, so to speak, somebody can’t login or they don’t have the technology to see what’s there, or it’s all images and I can’t see images and for all best intent it’s no different than I can give you a whole book in braille and say that’s perfectly accessible. It is to one person or somebody that can read braille. It’s not to everybody else. So there is no one thing.
Joan: Yeah. And you mentioned before around COVID-19, how the transition online highlighted a number, I suppose inequities in digital equity. So can you talk a little bit more about that, how COVID-19 has shifted the paradigm around accessibility and inclusion, or a positive or a negative way?
Darren: I think in one of the most obvious way is to start with was for deaf and hard of hearing students in particular with education moving online. And there was a lot of the tools like Zoom, Teams, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. There’s a few different tools are being used at time that really had a very small, I suppose presence of the ability to auto translate, transcribe the automatic, automatic transcription that was happening. But within, within about 12 months, if not less, those tools became really good. A lot of time and money was invested into making sure that live transcripts could happen or automatic ones. Look while they’re not, they’re not 100%. They are far from in some cases, and it does depend on the speaker. There was a lot of work is done at that time, I think, across the sector, how do we include for some deaf and hard of hearing students? I know ADCET put together some guides got some funding from COVID response so there’s a guide for supporting deaf and hard of hearing students. That was a direct response to that. And then we’ve, since then we’ve also developed the blind, vision-impaired guidelines for students in tertiary. And that was highlighted, I think just even before, just going back slightly before COVID, it was highlighted in a thing was the 2018 report by Vision Australia, which was titled ‘Online and off track’ which was about the number of students that are in higher education that were having complete struggles with the online environment. From partial access to no access to most of that hinges around accessibility.
Joan: Right. So those guidelines is that you know, you mentioned that it’s around tertiary education. So it was that created in consultation with a number of institutions because I’m aware that you’re a part of a community of practice. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Darren: Yes. The guidelines were created in consultation with ADCET, consults with a range of different providers. The deaf guidelines I’m not sure – that was just a little bit before my time. The Blind and Vision Impaired guidelines for consultation in largely developed along with the Blind Citizens Australia, along with some Vision Australia representation. So there was going to, like most things is an Advisory Committee that’s put together that has their input into and that makes up of students lived experience, individuals, a whole range of people got to have a say and put their parts in. And we had way too much information as you always do, and then tried to put that down and cull some of that into really handy how to’s. So we really wanted the guide to be a practical guide for academic staff that are putting courses together and delivering things online. What are some of the things I can do? How can I do some of this better? There’s an e-learning course which has been developed for that, which sits at Disabilityawareness.com.au that’s there which is kind of an introduction to that. And it sits alongside there’s a UDL program, understanding Universal Design for Learning and things which ADCET has developed as well.
Joan: So those guidelines are available for people to use now, I suppose, what are some key considerations to design for digital equity in relation to online learning. And a couple of things that educators can do today, I suppose to make their units more digitally equitable.
Darren: Most people are often surprised when if I, with my hat on and I’d say what I think is most important is probably some captions, but it’s certainly not. It depends on your viewpoint. Most of the things people can do is not there, not really big ticket items. Most of the things is just rethinking how we currently do things. If, if we’re putting some material into a Word document, for instance, which most academics would start maybe from a Microsoft Word document. Putting in things like headings are really important actually styled headings from the system, not 16 point bold does not a heading make, kind of thing actually putting in headings level one, level two, level three. These are key navigation markers for a lot of different technologies. But in particular for some blind students that may be using screen reading software, that’s how you navigate a a book or a reading, et cetera. And it’s no different how the online space operates as well. There’s headings in the online space, and that’s how you navigate around. We’ve established ADCET has established a assistive technology community of practice. And that looks at the actual technology that we can empower students with that helped them to do some of this work in order to navigate systems, etc, depending on disability. And that consists of, I think there’s been 33, 34 members from different institutions, or this other 40 members. So 34 or something institutions, TAFE and universities across Australia and all states and territories. And we’ve got some colleagues from New Zealand in there as well. So Kia-ora to New Zealand listeners that might be there. We meet like every five weeks and we discuss current trends, what’s happening and it’s not surprising that we’re all in the same boat. So it’s really interesting to sit and see what’s happening across many institutions and see were all, we’ve all got the similar problems we’re all we’ve got some deaf students, we’ve got some blind students, we’ve got ADHD students. We’ve got a whole range of things and working out what works, what’s bits of tech that we now currently using? What best support students online? And that’s starting to change with a lot of things coming back face-to-face. I’m getting we’ve got some students, this came up a few months ago, some students coming back. And one of them now in third year that hasn’t ever set foot on campus because it’d been remote the whole time so new challenges coming into how I now work in an in an offline space and finding they have to completely readjust the way that they study. It worked well while they’re online. And for some students it’s been fantastic. So talking about silver linings for some students with anxiety and social things, et cetera the COVID situation was brilliant as that allowed them not to be in a large room with a whole bunch of students. So no, it’s been, it’s been really interesting.
Joan: You mentioned that community of practice across 33 institutions and whatnot across TAFE and higher education given it’s a community of practice are you finding that you put problems forward and then someone else has already solved that problem and you learn from each other, or is it about finding new solutions or and how to make everything the digital equity better, I suppose, more impactful?
Darren: Good, It’s a good question. I think it’s a bit of both. And it’s largely will prompt some questions and go around and ask everybody the same questions like leading up to Global Accessibility Awareness Day we’re asking what’s worked really well at your institution? What’s something that you’ll hear other institutions say ‘well, that’s amazing! We’d never thought something like that.’ Or the general question is, ‘how could you afford that?’ So just to hear from colleagues that they don’t really get them into an opportunity to do and with a lot of conferences being moved online, other things those abilities to stay around and have a coffee and have a conversation with somebody. Yeah, That’s fascinating. That wasn’t a presentation that wasn’t so hearing colleagues and talk about those things, One brought up something about 90% of their exams are now gone (formal exams) and now have other forms of assessment and we go ‘90% exams are now gone?’ Yeah, we’re not going back. And then you hear other institutions that are going full on we’re going back to face-to-face exams, formal exam. So it’s interesting and I think everybody is struggling. What are we coming out of COVID? What does this look like? And nobody knows. Should we hedge it all into the online space? Do we hedge back into doing a bit of both? Is it blended? Is it not? And digital equity is playing in all of those spaces. So it’s an interesting time.
Joan: It really is interesting hearing from a learner experience design perspective, so we look at the a unit as a whole, the assessment, the formative, the summative, and then how it feeds into the course-wide structure. But you look at everything across the board from exams, every absolutely everything. Do you know what I mean? So it’s really interesting to hear what you’re actually doing in that space. And how do you, how do you actually make sure that institutions and individuals are being mindful of digital equity? Is there anything that you can do?
Darren: That’s a tough question. And it’s the silver bullet. I don’t think there is one. I largely come from the viewpoint that we can’t make everything 100% accessible. Yeah, it’s an impossible mission. You’d be chasing your tail forever. And as I mentioned earlier, a braille book is perfectly fine for somebody that can read braille yeah. To some others, so there’s people go what’s the one document format I can use? What’s the one thing I could do with this? There’s a whole series of things and being able to keep in touch with the students and that’s largely where the assistive tech comes from. These are people who are dealing with students. We get that immediate feedback, we get that lived experience and some of the people certainly have their own lived experience that are on the community practices. Along with that, sorry, I forgot to mention earlier with with Deakin I’ve been working with a bunch of students or a group of students there which was piloting and establishing a swat team. So they are students with assistive tech. So that’s about some peer-to-peer support. It’s about some advocacy, it’s about some education. And, um, yeah, that’s now being rolled out. We’ve had, I think we’ve got seven or something interested institutions at the moment that we’re looking at expanding that into. But having that direct lived experience from the students finding out what’s working, what isn’t well, my priorities might be slightly different. Students will bring up some things that nobody has considered because we’re not there, put yourself back in the position of being the student in certain subjects saying that the educators put it together with more often than not the best intent. And the student will then come in and just go, well, that doesn’t work very well. That can be a shock to people. And I that’s what I was saying so trying to think that you’re covering all bases is difficult. So we tell people, generally, take a breath. It shouldn’t be this difficult. There’s, there’s lots. You never going to get 100% right. There is a, there is a fear of stepping into that space. It’s not an area that most people are very well aware of. Those little things that people can do and most of it is the low-hanging fruit stuff that’s using some headings, it’s going to link off to a video, link to something that already has some captions. Just have a look. You can’t be in control of what I would say roughly probably 50% of the content inside a unit isn’t owned by that unit. Linking out to other people’s resources, but link to better resources. You can link to things which are text-based, linked to things that have a transcript if you’ve got those and that’s I suppose the other push is a lot of things is that media, we’re going into media-based things. You can keep them short and keep them simple. Talking heads anyway, look, there’s lots and lots.
Joan: I’m hearing that there is so much that we can do. It’s just what you actually do. And I think having this conversation is a great start that people are listening to it. And then what they do with it is up to them. So I’ll pop the resources that you’ve mentioned in the resources below, this podcast. I suppose just to tie it altogether, you, so you’ve talked a lot about the resources, the communities of practice, looking at the institutional level, looking at the individual level at Deakin with students and looking at their needs and how that what solutions you’ve come up with and how that meets their needs or doesn’t meet their needs. And then that going back out to institutions. So that’s great, I suppose for you on a personal note, what would you like to see in the next couple of years given that COVID has had a transformation. But what would you love to see? I know silver lining, blue-sky thinking for digital equity across institutions?
Darren: It’s a very loaded question as well. There’s lots of things. I don’t think we’re ever going to get it right that’s the reality and very pragmatic in that sense. They, we’ve got augmented reality, certainly taking off virtual reality, and that will include a lot of people that weren’t feeling included before where you can have your own avatar and those kind of things. But it will also exclude a lot of people as well. And I think I think the future looks better. I really do. I’m a bit of an optimist in that sense because we’re moving into a bit more micro credentialing, lifelong learning. People will be in touch with their institutions, ongoing, and not doing not three, four-year degrees kind of thing. Maybe ten years time we might be doing, we might be just becoming in learning the skill that we need for now. Then going in applying that in the workplace. And students are certainly some of the best feedback, but I will give a quick plug. There’s some other work at Deakin is going on behind the scenes, as I said with Danni McCarthy in the Accessibility Champions Project there. And that’s around everyday accessibility. Things that everybody can actually do because it is everybody’s role from that document you might be putting together for somebody else to put online from that open day guide that’s being developed from the actual introduction to a course or that video, or the language that’s used inside that video from you’ll be studying this into, we will be studying this can have a completely different mindset on students. We, we, I’m included! You said, ‘we will’ be looking at this rather than you need to study this and you need to go and do this. So I’m optimistic and the tools are getting better. As I said, captioning has come along. There’s a whole range of things that are that are, that are in development that will be solved and then we’ll have new issues and challenges.
Joan: Well, it sounds like exactly what you said with new technologies comes new challenges, but how we think about accessibility and inclusion and bringing it from the start and starting with everyone versus making it one department’s issue. Yes. I look, I’d like to thank you so much for your time Darren, it was really insightful conversations and, um, yeah, thank you. And any lasting comments that you’d like to leave?
Darren: And, um, No, thank you, everybody. Get accessible. There’s some things there. I will give some links and I’ll say, I’ll, I’ll provide a link as well to some student podcasts that the students at Deakin have been doing, which are a fantastic listen.
Joan: Awesome. Thank you for your time.
Darren: Thank you, Joan.